I have a confession to make. I was a terrible free throw shooter in High School. Actually, I'm still a terrible free throw shooter, but it doesn't come up as much playing pick up ball twice a week.
I played two years of varsity basketball back in the day. I was the team captain and starting point guard my senior year. And I couldn't make free throws. My misses at the line cost my team at least two games my senior year. One was particularly painful, where we lost a lead in the final minutes as the opposition fouled me over and over and I went 1 for 6 from the line.
This was in the days of the 1-and-1, before there was any such thing as the double bonus. You missed the first free throw, and you didn't get another one.
For most bad foul shooters, the biggest problem is in the head, and that was my problem for sure. I was never by any means much of a shooter of any kind -- some people have a natural gift for putting the ball in the basket, and I never did. But in free throw drills in practice, I would invariably make sever or eight out of ten. I was about as good as anyone else on my team -- in practice.
Games were another story. Through my junior year, I never shot a lot of free throws. But as a senior, after one bad game, with the lead dwindling around me and everyone looking at me, those misses took up permanent residence in my cerebral cortex. Unfortunately, I was the point guard and by far the best ball-handler on the team, so the ball was usually in my hands at the end of the game. It's not as if the other teams had scouted me and knew to foul me -- I had the ball, they were behind, they fouled. But I assure you, after that first miss, they couldn't wait to foul me again.
Blake Griffin's free throw battle right now is almost entirely in his mind. Last season, he shot under 60% through December, 67% in January and February, and almost 70% in March and April. It was a very normal, very encouraging progression from a sub-par foul shooter who showed steady improvement based on ongoing practice. He wasn't in his head.
His regression at the beginning of this season to a level far worse than at any time in his rookie season is a different story. Through four games, he'd made 24 of 36 free throws -- about where he was for most of his rookie year. But beginning with a 5 for 13 effort against New Jersey a month ago, things got really dicey. From January 16 through February 4 when he went 1 for 7 in Washington, Griffin made 35 of 83 free throw attempts, 42%. Worse still, toward the end of that string, he airballed at least two free throws -- he was never a good foul shooter, but I don't remember him airballing any free throws his rookie year. This was clearly not about the ability to get the ball close to the rim -- it had clearly become mental.
That's a big part of why the rhythm dribble change he made to his foul line routine seemed to work like magic. The first day he made the change, he made 6 of 7. In his first four games with his new routine, he went 22 for 27, better than 80%.
There are three reasons the rhythm dribble worked. Forget what Mike Smith says about getting his weight forward. It's simple enough for him to shift his weight back again after the dribbles if he wants. No, the reason it worked was:
1) It made the process more mechanical. Bounce - bounce - bounce - shoot becomes a process you repeat without thinking about it. The last thing a bad free throw shooter wants to do at the line is think. Trust me, I know.
2) It linked the process to a basketball move. His prior routine, just holding the ball and standing there, is not how you play basketball. In a game, you either catch the ball and shoot, or you dribble and shoot. Since you can't receive a pass at the line, dribble and shoot is the best free throw line analog for a normal basketball action. By linking the process to a basketball move he's practiced thousands of times, he is invoking muscle memory -- once again getting out of his head and into his body for the foul shot. It's the same reason that Griffin's perimeter shot is so much better when he catches and shoots without any hesitation.
3) It gave him confidence. Psychologically, seeing that first free throw go in using the new routine was huge. In his head, he was suddenly a better foul shooter. Should that change by itself have made him twice as good at the line? Of course not. But shooting with confidence can certainly make that much of a difference.
Blake has now played five games with his new three dribble foul line routine. In three of those games, he has made 6 of 7, 9 of 10 and 7 of 8. In the other two, he's 0 for 2 and 2 for 9. What's the difference? Whether the first shot went in or not. When that first shot goes in, it allows him to preserve the self-image of the good free throw shooter -- but with an early miss the confidence quickly seeps away, as evidenced in Monday night's 2 for 9 debacle. With each failure, he's thinking about the last free throw, letting the mental aspect take over rather than just letting his body shoot.
All Griffin can do is keep working at it. The three dribble routine is definitely better than his previous method, for the reasons outlined above. But no mere free throw line ritual is going to make him a good free throw shooter until he gets out of his own head when he's at the line.
Take it from someone who knows.